We now face a unique crisis caused by the collision of three realities: the pandemic threatening our health, economic dislocation and the inescapable fact of systemic, structural racial injustice. This crisis rises far beyond partisan politics and has both immediate and long-term consequences, crystallizing around decisions affecting the present and future education of our children. Hopefully, we can all agree on the importance of caring for and educating our children well, as foundational in assuring “the general welfare” of citizens promised by the Constitution. As a community, we must wrap our collective arms around all of our children, designing creative new strategies to ensure the care and instruction that will equip them—and our community — for a prosperous future. This is difficult work, requiring hard conversations and vulnerable honesty, while ensuring that all voices are represented at the table, from the halls of power to those often ignored.

The “urgency of now” requires resuming excellent instruction to every student, while simultaneously ensuring safety and health of both students and school personnel, and also offering children care every day, allowing parents to work. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board has decided providing health and safety necessitates only remote learning for at least nine weeks. Accomplishing effective instruction and full day care requires comprehensive, collective, out-of-the-box planning to address challenges:

  • New approaches to instruction addressing both the learning losses of the spring’s shutdown and the existing disparities in educational achievement. Thousands of students never logged on to online instruction during the spring; how can we ensure universal use of remote learning going forward?
  • Care and supervision through the day, perhaps by repurposing space in churches and community locations to create safe, healthy environments for those children whose parents must leave home to work.

Sources for the personnel needed to ensure sufficient care and supervision, genuine mentoring and tutorial assistance, and social distancing and healthy environments. We might tap into agency staff, reassigned teachers, or volunteers from retired educators, corporate employees given release time, and university students

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he financial resources to cover costs, such as an additional COVID-19 community fund focused solely on the education and care of our community’s children.

This is not just an immediate crisis demanding an urgent response. Our systems will inevitably be different at the end of this pandemic. The next 10 months will require new approaches to caring for and instructing children. Every crisis offers a learning opportunity for experimentation and collecting data on what works well, discarding those strategies that are ineffective.

We must also have the vision and commitment to create a radically different future, refusing to deny any longer the limitations of our educational, economic, and health systems, hamstrung by centuries of racial injustice and inadequate for the realities of the 21st century. We cannot continue on our current path. More than a third of our students lack basic skills and many families are trapped in poverty, facing nearly insurmountable barriers to climbing up the ladder. Under these conditions, this community will struggle to survive economically and socially —a nd will certainly not thrive.

If we are willing to remove personal and institutional blinders and shed habits of denial, we can see that many of our systems are broken, out-of-date, created in way that marginalized people of color, and insufficient to meet the demands of the 21st century or to ensure the well-being of all of our citizens. Our educational system was originally developed when our economy was primarily agricultural, then adjusted to meet the demands of a factory-based economy. This is a new day, with work demanding more and more digital skills and still-emerging knowledge and greater racial inclusivity. Likewise, the expectations, expertise, methodologies and costs of delivering health services have changed dramatically, leaving many citizens without access to these services. Our world has moved on, but our systems have not kept pace.

This crisis has economic, political, moral and spiritual dimensions. The Moravians who founded this community in the 18th century were ahead of their time when it came to education: teaching both boys and girls and emphasizing both academics and vocational skills. Can we not step ahead of our time, rather than being locked into systems now out of date and insufficient? We are blessed with incredible resources in this community, including excellent school facilities, a network of faith congregations, advanced medical institutions, foundations working to improve the quality of life here, and thousands of people of good will. Make no mistake: Failure is not an option. In one way or another, those individuals not served well and prepared for the future will show up on our doorstep, demanding our attention and exacting a heavy cost through incarceration, unemployment, poor health, violence, or withdrawal from active citizenship. Do we have the collective determination and creativity to take a deep breath, roll up our sleeves, and engage people from every part of our community in bringing new life to our educational, health and economic systems to ensure a bright future for our community?

Dean Clifford is a former teacher and the first executive director of Smart Start in Forsyth County. Kellie Easton is the president of Action4Equity.

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